The story of the Styx is legendary. Here are the stories that have been uncovered by students over many years...
Beach, Henry Flagler, and the Styx
Palm Beach: Around the world it means beauty. The aura and mystique of Palm Beach are renowned. For more than a century, the island has been the favorite "winter playground" of high-society socialites and celebrities. This legendary tropical paradise continues to lure the international jet set with its palm-fringed beaches, opulent resorts and lifestyle.
It all started in February, 1878, when the Spanish brigantine Providencia, bound from Trinidad to Cadiz with a cargo of coconuts, washed ashore on an unknown island. The strewn coconuts propagated and caused a wild growth of palm trees-hence the name "Palm Beach." At least that's one version of the story. And that's the frustrating thing about Palm Beach history: It seems that every person you talk to has their own version of the story.
It was Henry Morrison Flagler (pictured) who is credited with launching the legend. Flagler's dream was to build a grand hotel for the passengers of his Florida East Coast Railroad, and he selected Palm Beach. In 1894, his Royal Poinciana Hotel became the largest resort hotel in the world and reputedly the largest wooden structure ever built.
It is the hotel that this story focuses on. In 1893, Flagler announced one of his boldest plans ever--to extend the Florida East Coast Railroad to isolated Lake Worth, develop a town (now West Palm Beach) on two hundred acres along Lake Worth's west shore, and construct the sprawling Royal Poinciana Hotel on Lake Worth's east shore (now Palm Beach).
The only reason people came to Palm Beach was to stay at the Royal Poinciana, a six story, Georgian-style hotel. Flagler had built the destination, provided easy access on his railroad, and the cream of American society crowded into this tiny town as if at his command.
With its opening in 1894, the Royal Poinciana became the world's largest hotel, stretching more than 1,800 feet along Lake Worth, its 1,100 rooms accommodated 1,750 guests. The hallways were so extensive -- more than three miles in length -- that bellhops sometimes delivered messages and packages from the front desk to guest rooms by bicycle. To say the hotel was grand was an understatement.
Now comes the story behind the story: All the people with any memory of the event are long gone. All thats left are historys bone-pickers, tearing through the carrion of old articles and poorly written accounts of a long bygone era. This story is rife with Palm Beach politics and political spin. It is a story in black and white, about blacks and whites, that is anything but black and white. (Left, Royal Poinciana Hotel, 1894)
Palm Beach County is constantly in the news. Anthrax at tabloid newspapers, Muslim terrorists taking flying lessons, Butterfly Ballots, billionaires doing stupid things with their money, the Kennedys, the Bushes, Trump, IBM coming and going, it doesnt seem to stop. This story is about where it all began, and yes, there is a scandal involved.
In December 1997, the local alternative newspaper
New Times printed an expose on the Pleasant City section
of West Palm Beach, here follows an excerpt:
The housing problems in this area are more than a century old, beginning in 1894 when oil-and-railroad tycoon Henry M. Flagler contrived a scheme to get rid of blacks who lived on his island-paradise creation -- Palm Beach. At first Flagler hired thousands of unemployed black laborers to help build the Royal Poinciana Hotel and transform the island from a swamp to an opulent landing spot for wealthy socialites along his Florida East Coast Railway.
The workers, who lived in a Palm Beach shantytown called the Styx, toiled through the summer for the promise of a steady income. But when the hotel was completed, Flagler realized that his chichi guests wouldn't fancy staying at a hotel, however posh, if blacks lived in shacks nearby. So in reward, ostensibly, for completing the hotel on time, Flagler sponsored a carnival on the opposite side of the Intracoastal, in what later became the city of West Palm Beach. While the workers and their families enjoyed the festivities, Flagler had the Styx set ablaze, according to the book "Palm Beach Babylon," a social history of sorts that gives detailed accounts of island scandals. The Styx was razed, but Flagler created for his workers a new town to be built on property that he already owned north of the carnival site. That property became Pleasant City...
(For the full article: http://www.newtimesbpb.com/issues/1997-12-18/news.html)
Naturally, when this tasty tidbit of dirt on the founding father of this fair city is implicated in a racially motivated hate crime against people that helped build the very empire they would only get to sample from the outside, as dogs in the medieval kitchen might be thrown scraps from the masters table, hackles were raised. Say it isnt so Mr. Flagler. A quick email by Megan Balch to the bastion of all that is Flagler in Palm Beach County revealed the following:
Re: email asking about the Styx
Thank you for your inquiry regarding the shantytown known as The Styx [pictured above] once located in northern Palm Beach. Your interest in clarifying fact front fiction indicates to me that you are a true student of history. Many people take for granted that old legends and stories they hear are true, but only a true student of history carefully researches the facts.
The facts concerning the area known as The Styx have been distorted and falsified over the years. Henry Flagler did not even own the property on which The Styx was located. Several different Palm Beach residents owned property in The Styx including casino owner E.R. Bradley.
Most of the people who lived in The Styx were African-American and were either fishermen or worked at the nearby resorts owned by the Flagler System. The people who lived in The Styx did not own the property. Although many paid a rental fee of $3.00 per month to live on the land, others lived there illegally and did not pay rent. Because the area wasn't really a town, there was no sewer system and public health conditions were very poor.
As early as 1904, a local physician and partial Styx landowner Br. J.M. Munyon, along with health inspectors from the county, proposed that the area be leveled because of the dangers to public health. Munyon proposed the area be turned into a public park. Although not a Styx landowner, Flagler agreed to donate the needed resources to turn the area into a sanitary and safe park. (Flagler donated land to several organizations throughout Florida, including the land on which the current WPB Public Library is located as well as additional land that the Norton Museum now occupies.) A February 13, 1904 article in the Tropical Sun newspaper stated that a landowner by the name of Russell was going to clear his land of shanties and encouraged other Styx landowners to do the same. It was in this article that the residents of The Styx received their first notice that they had to move.
(The Breakers, sometime in the 20s, pictured at left.)
People continued to live in The Styx until 1912 when businessman/casino owner/Styx land owner E. R. Bradley posted notices in the Tropical Sun and around town indicating that he was going to develop the remaining land into a residential community called Floral Park, and the people currently living there had to move. After all the residents of The Styx had moved and taken all of their belongings, the shanties were cleared and burned. People who lived during that time remember seeing the residents move their belongings across the bridge in handcarts to the area between 15th and 23rd Streets in West Palm known as Pleasant City. Inez Lovett Peppers, who was 5 years old at the time, stated that "I don't remember any fire, maybe they did burn the shacks, but if they did, it was after everyone had already moved."
I hope this clears up any questions you may have about Flagler's involvement concerning The Styx. If you have any further inquiries about Flagler or Whitehall, please do not hesitate to email me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Andrea Fossum, Education Director, Flagler Museum
The Plot Thickens...
Pleasant City Memories
Pleasant City was settled by the black laborers whom Henry Flagler hired to build Palm Beach at the turn of the century. They were housed in a barracks-like camp on the island, a place known as the Styx.
When construction on Flagler's Royal Poinciana Hotel and other projects was finished, the railroad tycoon had no more use for his black builders. They were dismissed, evicted from the island, and the Styx was torn down.
For decades, blacks were not allowed on Palm Beach after sunset. They were employed as menials, as maids, gardeners and - a particularly demeaning job - as bicycle-rickshaw men, wheeling wealthy whites from the railroad station to the hotel and back.
Booted off the island they helped build, the evicted blacks had to go somewhere. Where they went became known as Pleasant City.
The article went on, but the bolt from the blue had struck. No one tells the same story when they recall the events of 1893. There even appears to be two separate Styx communities. Like any good detective story, this plot was just beginning to thicken.
Whenever a good story is found it is in the human nature to want to share it. And like good stories everywhere, someone has heard it before you. After retelling the story of the Styx for at least the dozenth time there came the expert testimony of someone whod read the definitive version in an article in another Post article from a year before. A little digging turned up the following:
Styx Burning Legend Just
Q: Did Henry Flagler really burn down a black neighborhood while residents watched a carnival?
A: The legend of the Styx is probably the most colorful in the history of Palm Beach County. Passed down by oral tradition, it is accepted as gospel by many. But the evidence all but dismisses it. The black shantytown sprang up on Palm Beach's County Road, north of the Royal Poinciana Hotel, in the 1890s to house the more than 2,000 black workers at the adjacent hotels.
The story is that Flagler was eager to oust the residents so he could develop the land. He had it condemned on health grounds, then hired a circus to set up across the Intracoastal Waterway in West Palm Beach, gave black residents free passes, and while they enjoyed the show, burned their homes down. Another version places the incident on Guy Fawkes Day, Nov. 5, 1906.
But Inez Peppers Lovett, who was born in 1895, said in 1994, a year before her death, that she recalled packing up and leaving the Styx but remembers no fire. And in 1994, T.T. Reese Jr., of the pioneer Dimick/Reese family, wrote to The Palm Beach Post "to lay these questions to rest." First, Reese said, Flagler didn't own the property. The Bradley brothers Col. E.R. Bradley owned the famed Beach Club casino - bought the 30 acres around 1910 and by February 1912 had cut it into 230 residential lots.
In 1912, Reese says, Bradley ordered his father to move the residents out. He says his father gave them at least two weeks, and he remembers seeing them walk across the bridge, hauling their belongings. After everyone left, Reese says, his father cleared the land, pulled up the trash and burned it. Newspaper clippings from the time back Reese's version of events. He died in 1997.
Historical Society of Palm Beach County: (561) 832-4164.
The battle line was drawn.
The Tycoon Who Began It All: Henry Morrison Flagler
Palm Beach is a place unlike any other in the world. And only the other day it was merely sand and marsh and brush, with palms that grew from cocoanuts which drifted ashore from the wreck of an East Indian schooner. And Flagler came and saw what there was. And then he saw what there would be.
--Edwin LeFevre, travel writer, 1909
It occurred to me very strongly that someone with sufficient means ought to provide accommodations for that class of people who are not sick, but who come here to enjoy the climate, have plenty of money, but could find no satisfactory way of spending it.
--Henry Morrison Flagler, 1882
Somebody screamed "FIIIIRRRE!" and, like a newborn baby's first piercing cry Palm Beach was born.
The panicked voice belonged to one of hundreds of black laborers whose shantytown was ablaze on the island of Palm Beach across the Lake Worth waterway. Rushing to the shoreline of the heavily shrubbed Florida mainland, they watched as fifty-foot flames engulfed their small wooden shacks in the shadow of the new Royal Poinciana Hotel. In an hour, the roaring inferno reduced their tinderbox homes to cinder and ash, leaving a great smoldering ruin near the magnificent hotel they had just completed for Henry Morrison Flagler only days before.
For the past eight months, nearly a thousand laborers drawn from the post-Civil War South-and now suddenly homeless-had struggled to build Flagler's Royal Poinciana Hotel out of the jungle and swamps of Palm Beach Island. The millionaire had promised them bonuses and a great celebration if they completed his 1,750-room hotel in time for the 1894 winter season. The workers responded. Toiling through summer--the hottest, most intolerable months of the Floridian year, with temperatures topping one hundred degrees--the workers struggled to complete Flagler's vision of an exclusive island resort hotel for America's rich and powerful.
As the deadline neared, the young black workforce labored day and night. Eleven men died during the backbreaking construction, but the work never stopped, not even for their funerals.
The hotel work crews won a race against Flagler's railroad construction laborers, who were laying track and building bridges to allow trains to provide door-to-door service from America's eastern states to the Royal Poinciana. Flagler had been forging south through Florida with his money, building a railroad through thick, mosquito-infested, alligator-ridden jungle, building hotels, creating jobs and commerce as he went along.
Throughout the construction of the Royal Poinciana, Flagler, a tall, affable man with a shock of wavy gray hair and thick gray mustache, had conversed easily with his workers, presenting a concerned grandfatherly image. He paid the unskilled laborers $1.10 per hour, forty cents above the national standard of seventy cents, which seemed generous, but served more as an ironclad insurance policy taken out by a shrewd businessman to ensure that his workers would not defect. He also pitted workers against each other in a calculated psychological game to get them to build faster. He needed the tight timetable to bring the first trainload of millionaires to Palm Beach in time for the inaugural winter season.
Flagler had a vision of transforming swampy, undeveloped Palm Beach into a private American Riviera and bringing the rest of Florida's frontier land into the modern era. The year was 1894. Grover Cleveland was president. Thomas Alva Edison prepared for a public demonstration of his revolutionary invention, the moving-picture camera, with film of a boxing match, a dancing girl, and a baby in a bathtub. The Republic of Hawaii was officially recognized by the United States.
The country was in a depression, politicians battled over a gold-versus-silver standard for the nation, and a violent railroad worker's strike against the giant Pullman Palace Car Company was in progress.
But there were few, if any, signs of a depression, of economic or social turmoil, on Palm Beach, a twelve-mile expanse of hot, thick jungle cooled by gentle ocean breezes off the coast of mainland Florida.
When the Royal Poinciana was completed, one obstacle remained before the doors to the grand halls and parlors of the world's greatest hotel could open. Flagler's vision of Palm Beach did not include the ramshackle, thatched-roof colony called "the Styx" where his "colored" workers and their families lived. He knew men of great money would not vacation on an island where poor, illiterate shanty blacks-the sons and daughters of African slaves freed three decades earlier-also lived. He knew they would not pay hundred-dollar-a-night hotel fees-rates unheard of at the time-in such an atmosphere.
With the grand opening of the Royal Poinciana only weeks away, Flagler announced he was throwing a special carnival for his workers, a hearty reward for their Herculean efforts in getting the world's largest hotel completed on schedule. A big top was erected on the mainland, directly across from the island, and a circus the size of Ringling Brothers was brought in. Chefs were hired to lay out huge buffets. Games were set up for the children. Everybody planned to have a gala time, courtesy of kindly Mr. Flagler.
On a warm January afternoon in 1894, the laborers and their families left the Styx for what would be the last time. They rowed west across the Lake Worth estuary. Screams of joy from the children anticipating circus clowns and trained animals and big-top excitement filled the air during the thirty-minute trip. Flagler stood on the shore of Palm Beach, waving, smiling.
As soon as the boats reached the mainland, scores of Flagler's white workers on Palm Beach converged on the Styx. They quickly collected the families' belongings, clothes, and valuables and carted them away. They then doused the town with gasoline.
At the height of the carnival, Flagler's henchmen stood at the edge of the doomed shantytown and lit a match to the first house. The gas soaked community ignited within seconds, and the blue afternoon sky above Palm Beach filled with billowing black smoke. The incredible bonfire could be seen from fifteen miles away. The smoke wafted through the big top within minutes, and panic erupted. As five pairs of clowns did pratfalls on the stage to the gay music of the circus orchestra, the laborers tore from the circus tent, frantically heading toward the shore.
There was nothing they could do. There was not enough time to get back to the island to save their homes. Screaming, crying, clutching each other, they watched the pyrotechnics in shock and despair. But Mr. Flagler was there to lend a hand. He announced that after the terrible, "accidental" blaze erupted, his executive workers risked life and limb running into the burning Styx to save as many belongings as they could. Flagler now offered to sell his displaced laborers land where the circus had been. He said if he they built new homes there, he would pay for the town's public utilities, including a water system, post office, and, particularly after the terrible Styx tragedy, a fire department.
Unaware of his true motives or simply helpless to do anything else, the laborers accepted Flagler's "generosity." They did not know it, but in 1890, when Flagler had purchased the future site of the Royal Poinciana Hotel, he had also paid forty-five thousand dollars for several hundred acres of land opposite the island, where West Palm Beach now stands. His vision of Palm Beach had always included establishing a city on the mainland where the "help" would live. They were not the first market Flagler had cornered.
At the time of the Styx fire, Flagler was the genius partner of John D. Rockefeller in the Standard Oil Company and a leading figure in American industry. He was easily capable of using unethical practices to succeed
Who to believe?
Many students have tried to find out what really happened the day the Styx burned...